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Summer and the Course Redesign Is Easy (essay)

Summertime and Course Redesign
June 29, 2012

For many people, the three best reasons to be a professor can be listed as (1) June, (2) July, and (3) August. However, I find that these months of the year -- without the day-to-day rush of students and burden of committees -- are the best time to do some important curricular work. I’ve been teaching at the college level for about 25 years, and some of the courses I’ve been teaching are inherited from others, some are of my own design, but I find it productive to revisit them periodically and freshen them up. 

Why Revise Course Syllabuses

In some cases, I find that my own teaching philosophy has evolved, but my course syllabus hasn’t, so the periodic review helps me make sure that my actual teaching practices are in sync with my teaching philosophy. For instance, if you say that you value the process of critical inquiry and analysis, but your course grade is largely based on a multiple-choice midterm exam and a multiple-choice final exam, your students’ experience will vary significantly from what you say you want it to be. 

Summer is a great time to redesign courses to make sure that course learning tasks and practices promote student achievement of our most important learning goals. While we may be particularly aware of disciplinary learning goals or departmental learning goals, the learning goals of our institution may not always be front and center in our thinking.  

For instance, when students completing first-year Russian are prepared for the second-year course, the first year course meets a departmental goal.  When students in a psychology methods class demonstrate that they understand research design, the class meets a disciplinary goal.  However, it’s also important to consider the college’s or university’s learning goals. Faculty may not often consider their own college’s or university’s mission statement and compare it to their own course syllabuses, but this is, in fact, a very useful exercise. Moreover, and especially if you’re thinking that you might be on the job market soon, you might consider the essential learning outcomes of the LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) program of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, since these outcomes are widely reflected in the mission statements of colleges and universities across North America.  

In this essay, I’ll share some examples of how I have revised my own courses in accordance with LEAP essential learning outcomes and how I’m continuing to do so.  I’m sharing my examples not to persuade you to try my pedagogical approaches, but rather to show the value of curricular revision in light of the essential learning outcomes.  If you reexamine your course syllabuses, you will probably find different areas of interest and concern:  I encourage you to follow up on them.

Before you begin the process of reviewing your course syllabuses, think about what you hope to gain from the experience.  Perhaps you’re looking for better student learning, measured in higher grades on a particular task. Perhaps you’re looking to implement a learning project that you can use to publicize the work of your department, measurable in accolades from your public relations department or stories on your college websites or brochures.  Whatever the purpose, you should be able to match it to measurable outcomes in the revised course compared with a benchmark or benchmarks of your point of departure.

Revising Writing Tasks

You might want to focus on writing, since written communication is one of the intellectual and practical skills of the essential learning outcomes and is likely an important area of focus for your institution. Do your writing assignments reflect higher order skills, e.g., analysis or synthesis, as suggested by Bloom or as revised by Anderson and Krathwohl, or do they constitute a recapitulation of memorized information?  Do they require critical and creative thinking? 

You might want to reconsider the rubrics you use to assess students’ writing.  For instance, you might want to re-examine how you balance grading of surface or mechanical errors, on the one hand, and the articulation of a thesis statement on the other. You might want to reconsider how your writing assignments focus on product or process and re-evaluate the use of drafts and an editing process. 

I find it helpful to reconfigure assignments to have maximum lengths rather than minimum lengths, because I’ve never met an editor who worked the other way.  Having a maximum length helps me focus students on measuring the value of each word and sentence, rather than looking to fill pages with nonsense or fluff.  If you want help with developing or revising the rubric for grading your writing assignment, you might want to see John Bean’s Engaging Ideas.

Revising Oral Presentation Tasks

This summer I am working on developing a new oral presentation task for my freshman seminar, since oral communication is another one of the intellectual and practical skills listed in the essential learning outcomes. Our graduates certainly find themselves in situations where they have to speak in public, whether they are elected officials arguing about a proposed law or policy or making a presentation to their boss or clients about a new product or service, our graduates are more successful when they are effective public speakers. Public speaking, like successful writing, will not arise suddenly without training.  If we value it, we should teach it. If you don’t have at least one oral skills activity (presentation, debate, etc.) in your course, you might consider revising some assignments to promote the development of oral communication skills.  

Community-Engaged Learning

Higher education research shows that service learning or community-engaged learning is a particularly high-impact practice as defined by George Kuh in High Impact Educational Practices. Community-engaged learning, anchored in real world challenges and interactions with diverse communities, promotes civic knowledge and engagement, another one of the essential learning outcomes. In my experience, students have consistently found community-engaged learning assignments particularly authentic and meaningful. 

For example, I created a service-learning course in our major at my previous institution: our students of Russian worked with elderly native speakers of Russian at a community center and found it a very powerful experience.  Regardless of your field, you can come up with a community-engaged learning course or learning project for an existing course.  For instance, history students can take oral histories and chemistry students can sample soil in playgrounds (as they do at Trinity College),

Remember that community-based learning projects require full partnership  with the relevant community organization so that the community has input on the design of the project. Faculty may also need to get institutional review board approval for projects involving human subjects. These projects are most assuredly worth the bother: students report again and again that they find their community-based projects very worthwhile experiences, what might be called opportunities for significant learning. (See L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences for more information.)

Teamwork

As you review your course, consider whether you are providing students with an opportunity to learn from peers with different points of view.  Teamwork and collaborative problem solving are among the intellectual and practical skills in the AAC&U’s essential learning outcomes. The challenge of developing a team project is providing an opportunity for students to work together but to retain individual responsibility for their contribution to the larger project. This requires some effort in the design of the learning task, from assigning students to groups to establishing an explicit agreement as to which students will perform which tasks and how they will hold one another accountable for completing their tasks. A grading formula should be articulated so that a student who fails to contribute will earn a poor grade without dragging down the rest of his or her team..

Ethical Reasoning

The development of ethical reasoning and action is another one of the essential learning outcomes. Last summer I reconceptualized a writing assignment in my freshman seminar to include the reading of a study of language and culture barriers in the workplace and the writing of a report recommending policy changes.  My students enjoyed the project and the discussion that flowed from it. Certainly it is challenging to grade students’ ethical reasoning; it’s a challenge I know I’m not facing alone.  

Lifelong Learning

One of the most important essential learning outcomes is the laying of the foundation for lifelong learning.  With the exponential growth of information available through the Internet, it is no longer possible for us to see ourselves as primarily responsible for the delivery of content, the way that our predecessors on the faculty may have seen themselves in the 19th century.  We must retool our courses to focus on the development of skills, including the skills to locate and then assess the credibility of content (“information literacy”). These skills should include self-reflection, that is, the students’ ability to assess their own learning.  One way to do that, for instance, is to require students to reflect on their own performances and create a plan to improve. By providing students an opportunity to focus their own learning on the goals they set for themselves we are empowering them to become life-long learners responsible for their own learning, rather than positioning them as dependent on external authorities.

Teaching Students How To Be Good Learners

Lastly, you might want to consider how you reward students for doing what is typically the “ungraded” work of the course, such as reading for each class’s discussion or lecture. Some faculty assign the reading and assume that some students will read the text(s) by the date of the given class, other students will read by the date of the following exam, and still other students will never read at all because they can get the notes from their classmates and incur no penalty for doing so. 

I turned that dis/incentive framework upside down in my classes by rewarding students for doing the reading on a timely basis and providing no such rewards to the students who don’t. I administer a short quiz at the start of every class. The quiz consists of true/false, multiple-choice, or short-answer questions based on the reading, and a few questions in the same formats based on the discussion or lecture of the immediately previous class. The quizzes are administered open-note, so students are encouraged to take notes on their reading and notes on class discussion. The impact of this practice has been significant in my teaching because the vast majority of students now come to class prepared to participate actively in discussion. 

This led me to the decision to make the midterm and final examinations “open-note.” Removing the burden of memorization, a lower-level skill on Bloom’s Taxonomy, allowed me to enhance the higher-level tasks that compelled students to use the information they previously were memorizing. Their use of that information ultimately led them to deeper assimilation of the material, and therefore a more meaningful learning experience. 

See It All In Action

Having revised the course syllabus, your next step is to teach the course and see if what you’ve done brings you the outcomes you were hoping for.  If you’re on the job market, you can use the process to describe how your teaching goals are in alignment with the goals of the institution to which you’re applying: just compare the essential learning outcomes to the mission statement of the institution and you will most likely find some overlap you can emphasize in your cover letter.  But the most important outcome is this: you’re bound to have a positive impact on student learning. 

For that reason and that alone, it’s a very productive way to spend some of your summer break.  Indeed, the luxury of time to focus on curriculum and to reconceptualize learning tasks and syllabuses is one of the reasons why I love (1) June, (2) July, and (3) August.

Bio

Benjamin Rifkin is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey.

 

 

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